Hi Dr. Barchas,
My three-year-old Viszla goes crazy when she is left alone. She barks constantly and will chew on furniture and the door frame. She is causing a lot of damage to my house. I’m worried that she could hurt herself as well. What can I do to help her?
Sarah, Toronto, ON
It sounds like your dog has separation anxiety. And, judging by the number of questions I receive on the subject both online and in my practice, a lot of people and dogs are facing this issue. Separation anxiety is one of the most common and, unfortunately, frustrating behavioral problems that dog owners face.
Dogs with separation anxiety become very agitated when left alone or when not receiving attention. They may bark, pant, chew on household objects, dig, or pace. In severe cases, dogs can injure themselves in their agitation. I have seen dogs that jumped through plate glass windows in their panic.
The key feature of separation anxiety is anxiety, not separation. Dogs with separation anxiety frequently will have symptoms of other anxiety disorders such as fear of storms or fireworks. Cats can suffer from separation anxiety, too. Cats with the disorder frequently urinate outside of the litter box while their owner is away.
There are two basic approaches to dealing with separation anxiety: behavioral modification (training) and medication. Of the two, behavioral modification is more effective and should always be tried first.
Many behavioral modification techniques can reduce the build up of anxiety that dogs face when their owner is preparing to leave the house. Owners can shift their morning routines so that dogs can’t predict when they will leave. Also, owners should avoid prolonged and emotional goodbyes when leaving. Your veterinarian should be able to recommend a number of ideas tailored to your specific situation.
For some dogs, behavioral modification alone is not enough. These dogs may benefit from medications that help to alleviate anxiety in general, and therefore reduce separation anxiety. The most commonly used medications include Valium and antidepressants such as Clomicalm (which is marketed specifically for separation anxiety) and Prozac. That’s right: Prozac.
Separation anxiety rarely can be cured completely. However, with diligent training and, in some instances, medication, usually it can be controlled.